For most players, spring training is a time to prepare for the regular season. Pitchers build up arm strength, hitters find their timing at the plate and Raul Ibanez practices dropping fly balls. However, for a select few, spring training is a five-week job interview in which their performances on the field will decide whether or not they make their respective teams.
Positional battles are the most exciting aspect of spring training because they are the only things that feel like they truly matter. The games don't count for anything and often deteriorate into minor league affairs by the fifth inning; nobody keeps track of who wins the Cactus or Grapefruit League titles each year. The stats don't matter either, as players are more focused on testing out a new changeup or fixing a hole in a swing than on ERA's and batting averages. But the winner of a positional battle will be in the lineup on Opening Day, and the loser will be on the bench, in the minors, on the trade block or on the waiver wire. This time it counts.
With that in mind, here are five exciting positional battles to keep an eye on this spring:
Red Sox outfield
The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury to free agency left a big hole in Boston's outfield. However, there is not a shortage of quality options with which to fill that void. The Red Sox still have two positions filled with Shane Victorino and a platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes, and the final spot is up for grabs between top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. and reclamation project Grady Sizemore.
Bradley and Sizemore are at two different points in their careers. Bradley is one of the top prospects in baseball, a 23-year-old center fielder with plate discipline, speed and a bit of pop in his bat. Sizemore was once regarded as one of the best players in the game as a Gold Glove center fielder who could hit 30 home runs, steal 30 bases and draw 100 walks. However, injuries halted his career at the age of 28, and he hasn't appeared in the majors since 2011.
Bradley likely has the edge in this competition. He offers more long-term value to the Red Sox as a young player who is still improving and has six years of team control. Last spring, Bradley earned a major league trial by batting .419/.507/.613. He didn't hit well in Boston (.189/.280/.337), but another strong performance in spring training should earn him another crack at it.
Meanwhile, Sizemore's first task is to prove that he is healthy enough to play. Then, the 31-year-old has to show that he hasn't lost his skills on the field. If he does both of those things, and if Bradley falls flat in March, then Sizemore could find his way into the Opening Day lineup. Between the development of a talented youngster and the human interest story of a high-profile comeback campaign, this battle should be fascinating.
The Oakland Athletics' division-winning 2013 roster relied heavily on platoons and defensive versatility, and their biggest positional battle involves both of those things.
The A's have Brandon Moss at first base and a platoon of Eric Sogard and Nick Punto at second. That leaves one more roster spot to fill with two things to consider: a platoon-mate/backup for Moss at first, and extra depth in the middle infield to protect against an injury to the fragile Jed Lowrie or a decline by the 36-year-old Punto.
Alberto Callaspo and Daric Barton are the leading candidates for this spot. The team has publicly stated that Callaspo could start at first base against left-handed pitching, so between that proclamation, his ability to play second and third base and his nearly $5 million salary, he is the most likely to make it.
Don't count out Barton, though. He's a defensive wizard at first who once drew 110 walks in a season and has hit lefties better than righties in his career. He's also out of options, so if he doesn't make the team then there's a good chance he will be claimed off waivers by another club. The A's have given him chance after chance over the years, but if they want to keep him around then they may need to trade Callaspo or cut one of their three catchers to make room. Nate Freiman is also in the picture, but he has minor league options remaining so he will probably start the year in Triple-A.
Arizona has three shortstops vying for two spots on the roster. Cliff Pennington served as the utility infielder last year and is likely to reprise that role in 2014. Meanwhile, Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings are battling for the starting job.
Gregorius' calling card is his defense, but he held his own at the plate last year by batting .252/.332/.373 (94 OPS+). Owings is a top-100 prospect who showed the ability to get on base during a brief major league stint in 2013. Both players are under the age of 25 and both were highly touted prospects, so this battle could be decided purely based on who plays better in March.
Mets first baseman
Davis is the high-risk, high-reward option. He was a first-round pick and a top prospect, but he has been inconsistent in the majors. He hit 32 home runs in 2012 but struggled so badly last year that he was demoted to Triple-A for a few weeks. He'll turn 27 in March, so time is running out for him to develop into the hitter he was once projected to be.
Duda is a less exciting option, but a more reliable one. He's a left-handed hitter with a bit of power and a big platoon split. The 28-year-old has been miscast as an outfielder throughout his career, as his defense there hurts his team more than his offense helps it. He is solid at first, though, so the Mets would prefer to play him there. New York isn't likely to contend this year, so giving one more chance to Davis, who has a higher ceiling than Duda, might be a wise option.
Cubs starting rotation
The Chicago Cubs are in the midst of a rebuilding process, which means that they get to throw a bunch of things against the wall and see what sticks. In this case, the projectiles come in the form of pitchers vying for the last spot in the rotation.
The Cubs have four locks in Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel. After that, the options include Chris Rusin, Jake Arrieta, James McDonald, Carlos Villanueva, Justin Grimm, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyle Hendricks. Given Hammel's injury problems in the last few years and the constant trade rumors circulating around Samardzija, the depth of starting pitchers should come in handy in 2014.
Each pitcher on the list is intriguing but flawed. Arrieta has a big fastball and was once a top prospect, but he has struggled to find success in the majors. Rusin provided league-average performance in 13 starts for Chicago last year, but doesn't have a high ceiling. Grimm has potential but struggled with the long ball in Texas. McDonald was brilliant at times for the Pirates, but missed most of 2013 with shoulder problems and is a long-shot to make the rotation. Villanueva is likely to keep his role as the long man in the bullpen who is available for spot starts, while Wada and Hendricks will probably open the season in Triple-A.